Mosaic of images from Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel 2012

Leviathan, Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel 2012

“Everything’s sacred, everything’s sacred. Remember, my boy: there’s nothing natural in nature. When it seems natural to you, it’ll be the end. Something else will start.”

–       The Centaur, in Pier Palo Pasolini’s Medea

After losing his wealth, family and health, righteous Job confronts god with the meaninglessness of his unmerited suffering, attempting to engage his creator in a dialectic which would allow him to rationally comprehend the judgment thrown against him in the heavenly court. When god finally responds to Job after a long silence, he avoids Job’s dialectical request by taking an allegorical bend. Speaking from the tempest, the voice of god rhetorically asks: Who is this that darkeneth counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up now thy loins like a man; for I will demand of thee, and declare thou unto Me. Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast the understanding. Who determined the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who stretched the line upon it? Whereupon were the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner-stone thereof, When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38: 2-7)

The Leviathan swims

The Leviathan swims

God’s answer intends to put Job in his place as a mortal by emphasizing the inseparable gap of both knowledge and power between the human and the divine. As a deity, god need not explain his (apparent) injustice to mortals, even those who are just. Yet Job merits at least an answer, even if he asks the wrong question, and God’s response circumvents Job’s proposed dialogue of equals to provide an allegorical answer which takes the form of the Leviathan: He maketh the deep to boil like a pot; he maketh the sea like a seething mixture. He maketh a path to shine after him; one would think the deep to be hoary. (Job 41: 23-24)

Essentially god’s answer is that “Even the Leviathan, a beast of massive proportions is beyond your feeble understanding. How do you propose to comprehend me, who is infinite and eternal?” God’s challenge to Job is through the incompatibilities of scale – how to measure the insignificance of man faced with the infinite of the heavenly? How to count the uncountable with the limit of a number system? How to approach the supernatural with nothing more than the rational?

Lucien Castaing-Taylor and Verena Paravel’s Leviathan proposes a ethnographic answer similar in nature to god’s metaphor, although the question their film poses during their voyage aboard a fishing trawler is not that of suffering, but that of meaning. There can be no dialectical answer (to why we fish, why the fish die, why the ship plies the seas) because our understanding is hindered by the limitations of our thought. There may not be a rational answer, but perhaps new perception capacities – image and sound – will expand the range of possible meanings (much like Job’s Leviathan) rather than reducing them.

The Leviathan bleeds

The Leviathan bleeds

As the modern electro-mechanical-human Leviathan churns through the black oily waters feeding upon the fish of the sea, the film presents a vision of fishing which extends beyond that of its own being – the promise of a vastness beyond that proposed by the common anthropocentric world view, in which rational man stands erect at the pyramid’s pinnacle, master over understanding and power. Leviathan’s visions present an imagery that is cosmic rather than anthropocentric, that admits man (or ship?) as but a single possible perceptive being rather than the center-point of all existence. By taking a cosmic view (enforced/created by the use of a dozen cameras) the silent, savage, stark imagery (almost all nocturnal) presents a mythological perception of existence rather than an analytical one.

The core the Book of Job shares with the film Leviathan is that of the limits of perception. Man can understand neither god nor nature nor the abyss, although if he is brave he will always try. Both the voice of god (heard from the heart of a storm) and the depths of the sea (seen from the vantage of a single boat) promise an immensity beyond these perceptive limits.

The Leviathan's torso

The Leviathan’s torso

The images of nature are signs pointing towards nature, but not necessarily representative ones, for these signs also confound nature (by being vaster than that which they record), just as the vastness of the three-dimensional perceptual natural world confounds the flatness of the cinematic image (why is it that the low resolution of the small digital cameras should provide a more “natural” image than the more technologically ‘perfect’ super-cameras?). The artifice of nature and the naturalness of man dovetail with each other, and the human qualities of animals, the machinal qualities of fishermen, the mythical qualities of the boat mix and meld to create an inseparable commingling of man, machine and sea. In Leviathan’s synthetic vision of the universe, man is as natural as nature (his hands, his face, tattoos, the ocean) and nature is as artificial as man (the ocean regurgitates beer cans like it does seashells). There are no ‘pure forms’ by which man and nature can be artificially and rationally analyzed, dissected, but only impure ones, (reflected by the presence of cuts which can barely be perceived within the blackness of the imagery) which heterogeneous, keep their unity.

Ethnology of fish, biology of man, anthropology of machines are the appropriate impure methods to approach an understanding of the cyborg, the compound, the mythological beast of the sea, which half-flesh, half-iron trawls its way yearlong through the stormy seas. Even the film’s soundtrack achieves an amalgamation through the commingling of all sound (one thinks of the electronic roar of the storm in Jean Espstein’s Le Tempestaire) – so that the sea’s roar, the bird’s calls, men’s speech, the ship’s creaking, the television’s muttering, the chains’ cranking all become concrete textures without one being privileged over the other.

There is a long literary and artistic tradition of using the vastness of the sea as a moralizing force. The ocean is a symbol of god once again come to prove to us our minuteness in face of the infinite, and Leviathan inscribes itself within this tradition, yet modernizing it. “The sea — this truth must be confessed  —” writes Conrad, “has no generosity. No display of manly qualities — courage, hardihood, endurance, faithfulness — has ever been known to touch its irresponsible consciousness of power.” [1]

Classically, the hardness of the sea has the force to transform man into a moral creature. Yet, as man gains apparent mastery over the elements, over the oceans through technological advancements, he too becomes as irresponsibly powerful and arbitrarily destructive (or creative) as the sea.

The Leviathan's intestines

The Leviathan’s intestines

Leviathan’s vision of man at sea although mythological, is neither obscurantist nor mystical, but practical and political. The work at hand  (fishing) demystifies the sea, as does the technological/economical perspective which creates the need for this roaming sea monster. When a severed fish head hangs over the edge of the boat, before tumbling into the void from the maw of the great sea-beast, it is impossible that the size, speed, efficiency of the killing of fish be anything other than a particular feature of our technocratic post-industrialized society. The fate that neither man, ship, nor fish can escape doom them all to repeat the gestures, different, yet similar to those of fishermen from time’s advent.

Only the fish, silent and gaping have no say in the matter, can ‘speak’ but through the mute image of their bloated floating corpses or their hacked-up bodies. Their emotional and perceptual response to their place in this natural/artificial lifecycle remains an impenetrable mystery: “As early as 1670, more than eight hundred thousand Dutch and Friesians, a not inconsiderable part of the entire population, were employed in herring fishing. A hundred years later, the number of herring caught annually is estimated to have been sixty billion. Given these quantities, the natural historians sought consolation in the idea that humanity was responsible for only a fraction of the endless destruction wrought in the cycle of life, and moreover in the assumption that the peculiar physiology of the fish left them free of the fear and pains that rack the bodies and souls of higher animals in their death throes. But the truth is that we do not know what the herring feels.” [2]

The Leviathan's maw

The Leviathan’s maw

We do not know how the fish feels, nor how the ship feels, and perhaps we do not even know how man feels. In citing Job, Leviathan expresses its desire to approach questions that are fundamentally human, but from a vaster viewpoint. Like Job, Leviathan has the boldness to challenge the mystery, and through innovative soundwork and camerawork explore the limits of our perception, only to discover ultimately, that which it perhaps knew from the start – that the more light we shine into the inky void, the deeper we comprehend that we are peering into the endless pit of our ignorance.

1. Joseph Conrad, The mirror of the Sea
2. W. G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn


Link to Sensory Ethnography Lab at Harvard


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